Saturday, 26 November 2016

What the New Epcot Needs

At the recent Destination D convention, Disney Parks CEO Bob Chapek confirmed that the beleaguered Epcot would be undergoing the same massive revitalization process enjoyed by California Adventure, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland, and to a certain extent, Animal Kingdom. Imagineers have been instructed to "dream big" in these initial blue sky planning sessions, stating that it would be both "more Disney, timeless, relevant, and family friendly" while at the same time staying true to Epcot's original theme of education. 

Epcot, originally known as EPCOT Center, has long been a trouble spot for Walt Disney World. Designed as a permanent world's fair of culture and technology, it has faced the ongoing struggle to remain abreast of technological developments while suffering managerial ennui. Anyone who has been paying attention to Epcot's status in the last few years might even bristle at the statement that it needs "more Disney" or to be more "relevant" and "family friendly"... Gran Fiesta Tour starring the Three Caballeros may be my favourite current attraction in Epcot, but Frozen Ever After was a controversial addition to Norway and rumours have a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction planned for the future. In the wake of our honeymoon in WDW, we had to admit that we loved World Showcase but found Future World uninspiring to say the least.

Besides the shortsightedness of merely injecting franchises into the park to spike merchandise sales and cross-promote feature films, which is an interior challenge of managerial will, Epcot's biggest external challenge has been the rapid rate of technological advancement since 1982. Most of us go through two or more versions of a smartphone before Imagineering can run a new attraction through the planning and building process. That problem shows no signs of diminishing any time soon, which is why the best course for Epcot may be to circumvent it altogether by slightly altering the theme of Future World. That alteration, if I may be so bold, is to evolve beyond the theme of technological progress to feature scientific discovery in general. 

That slight alteration can expand the subject matter of possible attractions, unshackle them from keeping pace with new technology, and present a more unified theme for the entire park. The new Epcot could move forward as celebration of human accomplishment in the arts and sciences, a testament to the diversity of cultures, histories, and peoples in a multicultural, globalized society and the ongoing improvement of our lives through scientific discovery and technological development. It would present, in an entertaining and picturesque format, a comprehensive story about our "Spaceship Earth," its place in the cosmos, the people who live on it, and the forces shaping our modern world. Epcot could become a place that helps us to better understand quantum mechanics, theoretical astrophysics, and one another. It would be, as I said, a celebration of human diversity, curiousity, and ingenuity. In this respect, it could mirror Animal Kingdom, which already celebrates natural and culture heritage with a wide range of natural and cultural attractions.

Lots of people will come up with specific attraction ideas, and I'm no different.  Personally, I would appreciate a new version of Spaceship Earth that diminishes the Eurocentric, Post-Enlightenment biases of the original to include aspects of traditional Indigenous ways of sharing knowledge, thus presenting a more nuanced view that challenges guests with a broader view of the human story. Mission: Space could stay, but Communicore West could certainly be useful for an exhibit on space exploration with participation from NASA, the Smithsonian, Chinese National Space Administration, Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, Roscosmos, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or whoever. What about a new version of Adventure Thru Inner Space in Communicore East, talking about quantum mechanics? What about replacing the Universe of Energy with a more full-bodied and educational attraction about prehistory, including the creation of the Earth and the development of life, with a segment on the future, climate change, and the importance of allowing Earth's natural cycles to continue unhindered by human activity? How about kicking out Nemo and getting back to SeaBase Alpha? Disneynature seems like a more valid franchise to tie into Epcot than Pixar or Marvel. And what about adding a few more countries to World Showcase, especially non-European ones? I assume a new Journey into Imagination is a given. It's always worth remembering, though, that the idle speculations of us armchair Imagineers has nothing to do with the considerations that actual Imagineers have to make.

Such is my idle speculation, but I would be happy with Imagineers first taking a program in STEAM studies - Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math - and expanding Epcot to that celebration of human diversity, curiousity, and ingenuity in scientific progress and global cultures. That, I think, is more important than any particular widgets, geegaws, or recognizable movie characters, which is the atomistic thinking that got Spaceship Earth a giant wand and Hollywood Studios a giant hat, and got Animal Kingdom stuck with Avatar. It would become, and should become, the fundamental guiding principle of any development in Epcot. For this to turn out well, Epcot needs to have a good, solid, defined purpose and I can't think of a better one than to celebrate the story of humankind and its place in the cosmos.

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